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A British sailor signaling a merchant ship as it passes the naval control base in the Thames estuary, November 1939

Simon Winchester has often written of great events that have been largely forgotten, of remarkable human beings who have quietly changed the world, and of places the rest of us wish we had seen. He is an adventurous and indefatigable traveler as well as a brilliant explorer of arcane problems and archives.

His last book, The Man Who Loved China,1 was a masterly portrait of the life and times of Joseph Needham, a protean British academic and biochemist who wrote a twenty-six-volume encyclopedia, Science and Civilisation in China, which showed in great practical detail that China, far from being the backward country that Westerners liked to patronize, had actually preceded the Western world by centuries in a vast range of scientific discoveries, inventions, and ideas. Winchester’s present book, Atlantic, is a portrait of the ocean that has been the theater of a dramatic and essential part of human history.

To read Winchester is to share the excitement of his travels and adventures. In Atlantic we first find him in the far north sailing a small boat in “a lumpy and capricious sea” among the great black basalt slivers of the Faroe Islands. More than four hundred pages later we leave him on the deserted and treacherous shore of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia, where he has gone in search of the memorial to Angus Campbell Macintyre, the lost first mate of the tug Sir Charles Elliott, which, in 1942, on the way to assist the stranded British Motor Vessel Dunedin Star, was itself wrecked on a reef. (Winchester left a message on the memorial and has dedicated Atlantic to Macintyre’s memory.)

In between we have approached Cape Town at dawn on a Greek freighter, shared Winchester’s delight at his first view of Jamestown, the tiny eighteenth-century capital of St. Helena, and nearly got stuck for the winter on an inaccessible, prematurely ice-bound beach in Greenland. We have sympathized with his frustration at being jailed in Patagonia as a suspected spy during the Falklands War, been stopped while on a former Russian research ship in the South Atlantic by a British warship on fishery patrol (“by chance the captain of the navy ship was an old acquaintance of mine”), and gone through a score of other adventures. Winchester’s travels recall C.P. Cavafy’s wish in his poem “Ithaka”:

May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time.

Winchester has chosen as a frame for his gigantic subject Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, but Atlantic is really on a different scale from that famous passage. It is about the relationship of human beings to the might and mystery of nature and the contrast between our puny efforts and ephemeral presence here on earth and the vast majesty of our planet as part of the universe. In this unequal confrontation, the Atlantic is a turbulent giant, first a mystery to be shunned and feared, then a challenge for explorers and settlers, and finally a supposedly infinite resource that is being plundered and recklessly abused.


The Atlantic covers thirty-three million square miles. It is now roughly in the middle of its estimated four- hundred-million-year lifespan as an ocean. Eventually “tectonic gymnastics” will probably transform earth’s geography into one continent surrounded by one sea. So far human involvement in this cosmic history covers less than 200,000 years. Winchester reconstructs what may well have been our ancestors’ first encounter with the ocean 164,000 years ago, in a cave at Pinnacle Point on South Africa’s Western Cape where, tasting their first seafood, they realized the advantages of a food supply constantly renewed by the tides, and settled down to a new form of oceanside life. The cave that supplied the detailed evidence of this historic event is still there and now abuts the ninth tee of the Pinnacle Point Beach and Golf Resort, a place advertised as “a new Garden of Eden.”

For a long period, the Atlantic defied human exploration and was a place of myths and monsters. Homer created the idea of Oceanus, a “vast globe- encircling river.” To Mediterranean sailors it was the “Great Outer Sea,” whose terrifying waters surged menacingly beyond the Pillars of Hercules. In the seventh century BC Phoenicians from the port of Tyre ventured beyond the Pillars, first northward and then southward down the West African coast in search of the murex sea-snail, first used by the Minoans as the source of the imperial purple dye of the ancient world, a substance as much as twenty times more valuable than gold. Although the Phoenicians clung to the shoreline, the experience greatly advanced both their knowledge of the sea and the design of their ships. The Romans tended to dislike the ocean, and Winchester describes the dismay of a group of legionaries posted to Britain on discovering that the last twenty-one miles would be by ship across what is now the English Channel.


As in other important matters during the Dark Ages of Europe, the Irish seem to have kept the uncertain flame of Atlantic sailing alight with the missionary voyages of Saint Brendan, in legend at least, to the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, and even Newfoundland, and, in 563 AD, of Saint Columba from Ireland to Iona on the west coast of Scotland. It was the Vikings, however, who took to the ocean in their square-sailed longships and for three centuries not only pillaged and sacked the European coastline—the “scourge of all northern Christendom”—but also made the first definitive transatlantic voyages.

Winchester gives a rousing account of how Leif Eriksson beat out Columbus (by nearly five centuries) as discoverer, although he was unaware of the fact, of America. In the summer of 1960 the Norwegian scholar Helge Ingstad went to northern Newfoundland in search of Leif Eriksson’s Vinland. Ingstad arrived with his daughter in a small sailboat at the tiny northernmost settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows2 and asked a local fisherman, George Decker, whether there were any ruins nearby. Decker replied, “Yeah, I know where there are some old ruins. Follow me.” They soon came upon almost a dozen very large grass-covered mounds, which, excavated over the next seven years, turned out to be the base for further westward voyages by the Norsemen, and quite probably of Leif Eriksson himself, since the carbon dating of the settlement, between 975 and 1020 AD, coincides with the date of 1001 AD given by the sagas for the Vinland settlement.

Columbus believed he had reached Asia, possibly Japan, and did not, in fact, set foot on the American continent. It was Amerigo Vespucci, whom Winchester describes as a Florentine “explorer,” “sorcerer,” and “pimp,” who stated in his flamboyant 1503 best-seller Mundus Novus that there was a new continent and that the Atlantic was a discrete body of water. In 1507, mapmakers in Freiburg produced a new world map on which they called the southern part of the new continent America. A globe published in Paris in 1515 gave the name to both parts of the continent, and in 1538 Mercator called the two parts “North America” and “South America.” The newly defined ocean was called the Atlantic, which is what Herodotus had called it in the fifth century BC.

In the mid-fifteenth century, Portugal—of which it used to be said “such a tiny land to live in, but the whole world to die in“—under its visionary king, Henry the Navigator, led an astonishing burst of global exploration. While the eastern Mediterranean was more or less blocked by Islamic power, vast possibilities for trade and colonization opened up to the west through the Atlantic. Vasco de Gama went to India; Bartholomew Diaz rounded the Cape of Storms; Pedro Cabral was the first to land in Brazil; and in 1519-1521 an expedition
commanded by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese employed by Spain, circumnavigated the globe. Others sometimes made accidental discoveries. Ponce de Léon found the Gulf Stream in 1513 during “his quest for the fountain of youth—a search that eventually won him the ironic substitute of being the first European to find Florida.” The immense importance of the Gulf Stream in accelerating the eastward voyage back to Europe was quickly understood. Later on, as first postmaster of the United States, Benjamin Franklin produced a Gulf Stream map.


Winchester’s Atlantic history proceeds from the age of exploration through better-known periods—colonization, commerce, whaling, the slave trade, wars, and naval battles.

The golden age for pirates, both Caribbean buccaneers and state-sponsored privateers, lasted from 1650 to 1725. It was romanticized, brutal, and short. As the world became weary of the pirates’ exploits, Winchester writes, naval patrols swept up more and more of them. In London they were tried in Admiralty courts and, if found guilty, as most were, were hanged on a special gibbet between the high- and low-tide marks at Execution Dock on the Thames at Wapping, their bodies being left in the noose until three tides had passed over them. They were then covered in tar (to ward off seabirds) and hung in chains at the mouth of the Thames at Tilbury. The last pirates were hanged at Execution Dock in 1830.

The other spur to naval efficiency and international regulation was, ironically enough, the slave trade. About eleven million slaves were transported to the New World from Africa between 1500 and 1860. When, in the early nineteenth century, governments began to turn against this measureless atrocity, it was naval units like the vast West Africa Squadron of the British Royal Navy that gained the upper hand over the slave traders. By 1850 the squadron had captured some 1,600 slave ships. The last slave ships—two American vessels—crossed the ocean in 1858 and 1859.


Unfortunately, as navies became better organized and equipped with new navigational aids like the chronometer, they were also in a better position to fight each other, if necessary in deep waters far out of sight of land. Winchester cites the 1639 fight between Dutch and Spanish ships as the first organized Atlantic battle. The Dutch captain deployed his ships in line, and forty-three Spanish ships were lost. The first battle fought in the deep ocean was the “Glorious First of June” in 1794 between British and French warships, which succeeded in protecting an American convoy bringing grain to starving France. The British victory at Trafalgar in 1805 gave Britain mastery of the Atlantic.

In the nineteenth century steel took the place of wood, steam replaced sails, rifled shell-firing guns succeeded cannon, and naval warfare became a “horrible business.” The last wooden British warship, HMS Howe, was launched in 1860; it had three decks, 121 guns, sails, and a 1,000-horsepower steam engine. The immense destructive power of the submarine in two world wars sounded the ultimate death of naval romance, while the allure of ocean trading, in Winchester’s view, vanished with the introduction in the mid-1950s, by Malcolm McLean, an American trucking executive, of container ships. Winchester writes:


Hamburger Kunsthalle/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource

‘Stormy Coast’; painting by Joseph Vernet, 1782

The shipping business transformed overnight from a business that involved tides and winds and gulls and sextants and signal flags and the smells of tar and sea-wet rope, into a universe of slickly oiled machines, of GPS-made, computer-calculated navigation courses, and loading cranes programmed by machine and timed to the millisecond.

While maritime trade has hugely expanded, many ocean-going vessels have now almost ceased to resemble ships at all.

Winchester mentions that in 1760 the news of King George II’s death took six weeks to reach New York. In 1865, London heard of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination twelve days after the event. Winchester traces the advances in transatlantic communication, from sailing ships, to packet ships, to ocean liners, to undersea cables, to radio, to airplanes, to our present surfeit of simultaneous information.


Winchester has always delighted in remembering modest people who have made a large contribution to history and then been forgotten. In Atlantic he recalls a number of them.

• Gil Eannes, the Portuguese navigator who, using Arab celestial navigation and a detailed navigational plan, contrived in 1434 to round the West African coast’s Cape Bojador, which, with its sandbars, perverse currents, and freak winds, had long proved literally impassable to coast-hugging sailing ships. (Winchester found a statue of Eannes on the seafront in Lagos.)

• James Rennell, a fearless British sailor who, in the eighteenth century, surveyed the deep ocean and its currents, as well as historical curiosities like the probable site of the shipwreck of Saint Paul, and was buried among the nation’s heroes in Westminster Abbey.

• Matthew Fontaine Maury of the US Navy, the great mid-nineteenth-century mapmaker and oceanographer who set a world standard for nautical maps and charts and first established the existence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which in turn encouraged Cyrus Field to lay the first transatlantic cable.

• Prince Albert I of Monaco, who established in Monaco the International Hydrographic Organization, which, since 1921, has “defined, delineated, and approved the official names of all the many oceans and seas, bays and inlets on the surface of the planet.”

I did not know, until I read Winchester’s book, that the rival to the popular Franklin stove was the “shallow, brick-lined Rumford fireplace,” invented by an “Anglo-German” Count Rumford who also

created the coffee percolator, invented a nutritious soup for feeding the poor, gave Munich its biggest beer garden and, fascinated by the complex physics of heat and cold, made the dessert that is known today as baked Alaska.

Or that John Newton, “an eighteenth-century clergyman of considerable piety—and talent” who wrote the words of “Amazing Grace,” had earlier been “a slaver of some prominence.” In the late Middle Ages Londoners called the representatives of the highly respected, Baltic-based Hanseatic League “easterlings” and, according to some authorities, the word, abbreviated to “sterling,” denoted solid reliability.


When Winchester comes to contemporary matters, he finds that the Atlantic is the victim of most of the plagues and stupidities that now beset us—reckless greed, disregard of nature, short-sighted profiteering, pollution at an unprecedented rate and volume, plastic bags, and the refusal of politicians, for short-term profit, to take steps to prevent long-term disaster. Winchester dramatically sets out what is at stake.

The 1,300 aircraft that cross the Atlantic each day are, in Winchester’s words, “dirty and fuel-hungry monsters.” A fully loaded Boeing 777 burning Jet-A kerosene and flying from London to New York leaves behind in the sky seventy tons of carbon dioxide. Older aircraft do far worse. “The ocean sees more than thirty-three million tons of plane-made carbon created in its skies every year.” Much effort is now being made to find ways of making air travel more efficient and carbon neutral, including new aircraft design and research into biologically based fuels deriving from plants and living creatures that during their growth consume large quantities of carbon dioxide.

The 70,000 ships that ply the oceans are also, Winchester writes, “dirty and fuel-hungry” and produce more carbon dioxide pollution than the entire continent of Africa. Far worse, the ocean has become a dumping ground for assorted wastes, foul and dangerous chemicals, plastics, and, until the 1970s, highly radioactive waste in huge quantities, not to mention the effluents of fish farms. Natural processes that cleanse an ocean even as large as the Atlantic cannot cope with this deadly assault.

Winchester states bluntly that the world is running out of fish because of the insatiable human appetite for seafood and the indiscriminate new technologies of industrial fishing, which have put in danger most of the fish humans prefer. One bluefin tuna can now fetch $30,000 in Tokyo’s fish market, but it is the once humble cod and the destruction of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks cod fishery that provide the starkest cautionary tale. Early explorers on the Newfoundland coast seldom failed to mention the prodigious numbers and ease of capture of this highly edible and nutritious fish, which used to be an inexpensive staple of European and American diet. In the 1950s the first large factory ships began to plunder the Grand Banks, scooping up every imaginable living creature in their path and making huge catches that were even then clearly unsustainable—810,000 tons of cod in 1968, and eight million tons in the first fifteen years of factory fishing.

The Canadian government decided to end this disastrous international free-for-all and, according to Winchester, created in the process an even greater disaster. In 1977 Canada declared a two-hundred-mile-wide Exclusive Economic Zone off its coasts from which foreign factory ships and trawlers from all over the world would be excluded. It then decided to set up a Canadian-run Atlantic fishing industry that would, among other things, benefit the hitherto impoverished province of Newfoundland. The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans “came up with estimates of how much cod any new Canadian fleet might legitimately catch and got them wildly, almost incredibly, wrong,” proclaiming that 400,000 tons of cod could be taken from the Grand Banks each year. Starting in the 1970s a boom in shipbuilding produced a fishing fleet as large and destructive as the foreign one that had been asked to leave.

Then, quite suddenly, the numbers of cod, and in particular the number of cod spawning, started to decline abruptly. Too late, in 1992, the experts suggested limiting the catch to 125,000 tons, but even then political interests insisted on 235,000 tons. The 1992 fishing season showed that the fishermen could not catch a tenth of that figure; “the cod,” in Winchester’s words, “quite simply, had run out.” The government closed the fishery down.

Winchester quotes John Culliney, a marine biologist working in Hawaii, who remarked that the “planet’s last great living wilderness” was the oceans, and that perhaps they were the frontier where man had “his last chance to prove himself a rational species.” In the South Atlantic the British, since the Falklands War, can take credit for preserving fish stocks and other wildlife like the albatross and the penguin in the 850,000 square miles around South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands that now make up the largest remaining part of the British Empire. Unlike Newfoundland it is an area largely free of politicians, industries, and voters with particular interests.

The signs of the warming of oceans are by now common knowledge, along with the contention that, in the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1995, there is “a discernible human influence on the global climate.” Emissions from burning fossil fuels have increased 40 percent since 1990. The world’s oceans and seas have risen eight inches since 1870. Polar ice and in particular Greenland’s glaciers, for which the Atlantic is the main catchment area, are melting at a higher rate than usual. Some governments have already publicly demonstrated their concern but have little power to change the situation. The Maldive Islands held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009, with all its ministers wearing frogmen suits; and Nepal staged a cabinet meeting at Everest Base Camp to publicize how the melting snows and icefields of the Himalayas were ruining the country’s crops and flooding its villages.

The first effects of the abnormal melting of Arctic ice are likely to be felt by those living in or around the Atlantic. “Violent weather,” Winchester writes, “added to higher water, turns an alarming development into a serially lethal one, and violent weather, it is said, is becoming much more common.” For New York City with its nearly six hundred miles of vulnerable coastline and extensive network of tunnels and underground telecommunications and fiber-optic lines, defensive measures would be colossally expensive, and, not surprisingly, politicians are “still waiting to be convinced.” London’s future problems are even worse.

There is a continuing argument about whether global warming had anything to do with the Katrina disaster. Winchester declares, as of now somewhat implausibly, that “the [coastal] communities should never have been built,” and that their inhabitants should move inland and away from the hurricane corridors. On the brighter side is the discovery, in 1986 in the Sargasso Sea, of the earth’s probably most abundant living creature, the tiny Prochlorococcus, a blue-green alg a that is said to absorb carbon dioxide and to produce one fifth of the earth’s atmospheric oxygen. It is thereby centrally important in keeping land-based creatures alive. Any threat to its existence would be disastrous; more research about it is needed.

Atlantic is a mine of fascinating information and ideas both small and colossal. That great ocean, in Winchester’s words, “became, in a sense, the cradle of modern Western civilization—the inland sea of the civilized Western world….” In his epilogue, he reverts to a simpler mood, writing that grand ideas about the ocean “can be elusive, fugitive concepts to those who merely like to stand on an Atlantic cliff top and contemplate the awful majesty of the sea rolling and unrolling away to the horizon.”

This Issue

April 7, 2011